On paper, a description of The Happytime Murders literally made me giddy. Then, the red-band trailer revealed one of the movie’s centerpiece gags, which proved to be a prolonged exemplar of the filmmakers’ miscalculation of what is humorous about bawdy puppets.
Peter Jackson delved into the depths of the sex, drugs and syphilitic lifestyles of Muppet-type entertainers in 1989’s Meet the Feebles, and he had far more comic success than The Happytime Murders. Likewise, Team America: World Police may be more of a jab at “Thunderbirds”-style puppetry than Happytime’s muppetry, but both share a common raunchy DNA. Yet Team America’s overarching satire established a stronger context for puppet sex and extended vomiting. The exceptional blending of live action and puppets in The Happytime Murders cannot overcome the movie’s varied faults.
The comedy is structured as a boilerplate film noir. Disgraced puppet detective Phil Philips (Bill Barretta, aka Rowlf the Dog, Swedish Chef, Dr. Teeth and Pepe the King Prawn) is now a private eye investigating the blackmail of a pretty young puppet named Sandra White (Dorien Davies) when the puppet cast members of “The Happytime Gang,” a nostalgically popular television program from the 1980s, begin showing up brutally murdered. Could it be related to a lucrative new syndication deal? As Phil digs deeper, he must team up with his former partner, Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who testified against him in the case that got him kicked off the force.
The Happytime Murders presupposes acceptance of an integrated world of humans and puppets. Though the movie alludes to a prior time when puppets merely sang and danced for the man, no explanation is given for the current world in which Philips resides. The temptation to gloss over these facts to get to the narrative is sensible, but the movie fails to capitalize on the more interesting story. Who cares about the murdered puppet plot, which, by the climactic showdown at a private airport, begins to feel like a rejected mystery for a third Fletch? How did this world happen? Was the success of “The Happytime Gang” related to the new world order or a result of it? Also, puppet ejaculation is not nearly as funny as director Brian Henson and his team, including screenwriter Todd Berger, think.
Neither are any of the jokes, most of which land with a flailing thump of laughlessness. Imagine what Trey Parker and Matt Stone could have done with a very R-rated human-puppet world; the evisceration of today’s incivility could be viciously hilarious. Maya Rudolph’s sartorially bold secretary, Bubbles, may be the only aspect of the film besides the work of its invisible puppeteers—including the return of Kevin Clash, the former Elmo operator whose “Sesame Street” career was dashed by allegations of sexual impropriety—worth noting.
2018 will have a hard time finding a more disappointing film to drop into theaters. Hopefully, Henson Alternative—part of the Jim Henson Company tasked to specialize in adult content—can survive this discouraging debut. I believe an audience exists in this world for a movie in which Kermit drops an F-bomb; giving him bizarre sexual proclivities, not so much.
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